When police were examining the scene of a fatal accident involving a cyclist in Lachine last week, it didn’t take long for investigators to notice something unusual about Tyrell Sterling’s bike — it had no brakes.
The highly-regarded 18-year-old, who was an avid cyclist, was one of a growing number of Montreal youths who are riding “fixies,” bikes that have only one gear and often no brakes.
Montreal police Inspector André Durocher confirmed that Tyrell’s bike did not have any brakes, but said they haven’t been able to determine whether that contributed to the accident. Tyrell was killed when he was run over by a truck near the Lachine Canal.
Fixed-gear, or single-speed, bikes have traditionally been used as racing bikes on velodromes and other racing tracks.
Over the years, the bikes have been adopted by bike messengers across North America, who find they can manoeuvre in and out of traffic more easily because the bikes are lighter and easier to manoeuvre. In Montreal, some couriers love the brakeless single-gear bikes because they’re easier to control in icy conditions and are less expensive to maintain because they have fewer parts.
Although they lack a traditional brake found on racers, experienced riders stop by using the pedals to lock the rear wheel. They slow down by applying pressure on the pedals, said Dan Krutzelmann, 29, a courier who has been riding a fixie in Montreal for many years.
He said couriers prefer fixed-gear bikes because they have more control over the bike.
“If you want to accelerate or decelerate, you do it yourself without using the brake,” he said. “The amount of pressure you apply on your pedals regulates your speed so you can slow down and stop completely just using your legs.”
“Fixies” a big bike trend
Over the past few years, some young riding enthusiasts have taken to riding fixies, which they configure by removing existing gears and brakes on multi-speed bikes.
“It is a big trend over the past four or five years,” said Douglas Escobar, a mechanic at McWhinnie’s bike store in Notre Dame de Grâce, where Tyrell was a frequent customer.
“The kids saw the couriers riding with them and they’re copying them,” said Escobar, adding that Tyrell was an experienced cyclist who had been using a one-speed bike for at least two years.
“A lot of his friends ride those bikes as well,” he said. “It if gets stolen it doesn’t cost too much to replace.”
Krutzelmann said he has also seen younger riders using brakeless fixies and suggests that new riders install a brake on their front wheel until they get used to the new style of riding.
Couriers are sometimes fined $37 by police officers who notice their bikes don’t have brakes, but Krutzelmann said he believes the bylaw requiring brakes is outdated. He says fixed-gear bikes are safe as long as they are used correctly.
But Constable Natalie Lavoie, a traffic safety officer with the Montreal police, disagrees.
Lavoie said riders can stop their bike “whatever way they want, but in an emergency situation they have to have brakes — for their safety and the safety of everyone else.”
“It’s illegal to not have brakes, there has to be at least one,” she said.
Krutzelmann said he feels the best way for cyclists to stay safe on the road is to be aware of their surroundings.
“There are too many people not paying attention to what is happening around them when they are riding.”